Mobile Games Teach the Big Boys: Report from E3 2003
By Jane Pinckard with Justin Hall, Fri May 16 07:30:00 GMT 2003

The games industry is dominated by the likes of Lara Croft and Super Mario. But those heroes might have something to learn from the mobile phones ringing in their pockets.

Each year the game industry meets for E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles where the worldwide video game publishers put on a sales spectacle. E3 might have seemed disappointing this year, with a handful of memorable creations nearly lost in a sea of sad sequels and predictable licenses.

But if you listen to the mobile gaming mavens you'll hear solutions to the thorniest issues in the games business. It's not happening among the consoles and computer publishers, it's happening in their pockets: on their mobile phones. The upstart mobile phone developers at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo are grabbing the attention for innovation - not just in gameplay, where attention has previously been focused. The real areas of experimentation are in the distribution and pricing structures for mobile content and in attracting the ever-elusive "casual gamer". And the mobile business is succeeding at both with unprecedented speed.

New Revenue

Still, there are some problems the mobile phone industry hasn't yet solved. They haven't yet mastered multiplayer. There are many experiments, and some might even be called successful. But no game has yet spread from phone to phone the way some in the industry wish. Mobile multiplayer has a new advocate - service providers who want to see games generate a more consistent stream of revenue. Appearing at a panel entitled "Understand the Carrier Mindset" AT&T Wireless Services' Scott Edison, Director of Business Development, asked, "How can we stay in the revenue stream? How can we stay in the mix?" It's an important question for content developers, and it's being tackled in many different ways.

Asian markets have incubated a symbiotic relationship between PC platform gaming and mobile devices for several years. In that part of the world, multiplayer online gaming is a lifestyle, a casual pastime in thousands of popular cybercafes. In order to facilitate the easy coming and going of millions of players, game companies in Asia have innovated as many as ten payment methods for any one multiplayer online game. By sending a premium short mail message to a specific address, for example, players can pay for additional time in a game world. And players can purchase "pre-paid" cards at convenience stores, each offering time in the game world.

Minute-by-minute billing, paying by SMS, pre-paid cards, this is all lifted straight from the mobile phone industry. These systems accommodate young markets for games, potentially allowing hundreds of millions of previously excluded gamers to join the fun online.

New Gamer

Now that you have a way for almost anyone to download and play a game, how do you get them to do it? For the gaming giants the most important market is the people who don't play. As popular as games are, the non-playing population is far larger.

Microsoft and Sony this week announced price drops in their Xbox and PlayStation 2, hoping to further grow their share of the market through increased hardware sales. Tens of millions are numbers to be proud of in the console game business. But mobile phones have hundreds of millions of sales already in the bag. That's an enormous installed user base - hundreds of millions of possible players.

Most of those phones are old though; devices with black and white screens barely capable of tic-tac-toe. Encouraging users to purchase new multimedia mobile phones is critical if companies are to develop a platform for state of the art gaming. But gaming is not yet luring new buyers; according to Lee Fenton, Commercial Director, Vodafone Global Content Services, "the driver [for handset upgrades] so far isn't games, it is photos. Ringtones and games drive usage, but not new purchases."

This leaves game makers with a limited platform for making games attractive to non-gamers. To judge from the early market leaders, licenses generated by pop culture including movies and television make for easy brand recognition. For years, simple games have worked off television show trivia. And with sports, people have team allegiance, and they already know the rules involved.

Henk Rogers of Blue Lava Games is in the enviable position of owning one of the most enduring properties in the game world: the maddeningly addictive Tetris. According to Rogers, they are following the model of leading mobile providers in Japan; offering one major branded game surrounded by a bunch of no-brand titles. They've launched Tetris for mobile devices and since then they've published a game a month along the lines of video poker and simple word games.

Simple games with short experiences help people see a game as a low commitment. Mainstream console and computer gamesmakers are shortening their gamelengths to lure new players. Mobile games starve without this understanding. You only have a 30 second window - the game must be convenient. You need to be able to pause and save. You need to have a game experience in 30 seconds or three minutes. The mobile game experience is the essence of the tight time frame.

Make Great Games

Creative game developers are getting around technical issues like lag and latency, and creating fast, tight, incredibly appealing games which can be played in an elevator, on the subway, or, as Rogers confessed, while waiting at a red light.

Editor and founder of Wireless Gaming Review, Matthew Bellows is the point-man for mobile games. His able moderating of two of E3 panel sessions brought forward many of the best examples in mobile games. We asked him what he sees for the state of the industry. "One trend I think is really exciting is that the quality of mobile games across the board has skyrocketed. On our site, the games which users used to rate as an '8' are now a '6'." And, as the quality goes up, the price remains the same. Speaking of the mobile phone game version of the widespread console success, "[GameLoft's] Splinter Cell is five, six dollars, and it's so much better than the early Java games we used to have."

The full potential of wireless gaming has yet to be tapped, and the mobile market is a good place to try out new ideas. Bellows suggests that Sega Mobile might take a wireless success back to Sega for incorporating into a console game. He envisions future breakthroughs in electronic entertainment finally emerging from our pockets.

It's Media Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

Jane Pinckard studies the social worlds built by technological tools, especially in that mysterious space between the east and west. She is personally involved in media culture through, and writes about video games for

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.